Catholic Central High School juniors and seniors who have maintained a 4.0 average or higher enjoy a special awards breakfast at Mercantile Hall in Burlington on March 16. (Photos by Karen Mahoney)

Even students who eventually finish first in their college class can fall hard.

Ania Horner speaks from experience when she continues to share her story about turning to God and her Catholic faith when the going got rough.

Horner, president of Aurora Medical Center-Burlington and Aurora Lakeland Medical Center-Elkhorn, was the keynote speaker March 16 for the Outstanding Scholars Breakfast held by Catholic Central High School at Mercantile Hall in Burlington.

Horner graduated from CCHS in 1991, and her children attended St. Mary’s Grade School and Catholic Central. She earned her bachelor of science and master of science degrees with a focus on health systems leadership from Marquette University.

“My family believes in Catholic Central, and I have such a strong connection to the school,” said Horner. “My brothers and my children all attended CCHS, and my dad served on the school board.”

Horner said she was impressed with the accomplishments of the students and began asking students which clubs and activities they were in. Each student raised their hand for at least one extracurricular activity, ranging from ping pong club to Key Club and trap shooting; many were involved in more than one.

“That is what I imagined would happen. My hypothesis is correct. You are great academically and you are a true citizen of your community,” she said. “This willingness to be involved and put yourself in new situations is a small-school mentality that I credit a portion of my success and my strength to. I never knew in high school that you had to be the smart kid, the band kid or the musical kid. I just knew to be a Hilltopper. I knew some teachers cared about me, a community wanted me to succeed and my faith would help me through.”

Horner shared a transformative time in her early college days when she anticipated majoring in medicine at Marquette and started the pre-med track. She considered Marquette an extension of her high school years and joined various clubs and groups. She had a great time until she said she didn’t.

“I, the kid who could do it all, had a rude awakening in my second semester of college. I did not like my classes and was not doing well in my classes, and I did not know my professors,” she said. “It was bad. I met with my advisor and was told that I was on a short academic leash. I walked out devastated. How could I face my parents? I was too embarrassed to tell my friends. It was mortifying, and I didn’t know how to get myself out of there.”

Devastated, Horner remembers walking over to Gesu Church, climbing the stairs and looking at the beautiful doors. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the doors to go inside, but they were locked. She sat on the steps and cried when a kind woman patted her knee and said, “Honey, the lower chapel is always open.”

“When one door closes, another one opens,” said Horner. “So, I basked in the lower chapel and prayed and prayed. Eventually, I calmed myself down and God gave me the clarity and strength to walk out, pick myself up, learn from my first year, and recommit. I switched to nursing. I loved my classes. I picked the activities I loved to do instead of all of them, and I made a point to know my professors and take advantage of their lessons. It was a big school and a big world, but I made it my small school just like CC.”

Horner graduated first in her class, earning her bachelor’s in nursing, and she eventually went back to school to earn her master’s while working full time and raising two small children. She encouraged students to embrace lifelong learning.

“People love to teach; ask people about their passions and you will learn,” she said. “Make it your small world. Never stop learning.”

Kicking off the sixth annual Outstanding Scholars Breakfast was an introduction by Brian Shimon, Principal at CCHS. Mayor Jeannie Hefty welcomed students and Bruce Varick, Associate Superintendent of Schools, presented the prayer.

Each Catholic Central student attending the awards breakfast maintained a 4.0 GPA or higher for all their years of their education at CCHS.

Students receiving academic achievement awards from Congressman Bryan Steil and CCHS were juniors Alan Howell, Paige Kerkhoff, Victor Morrow and Joshua Simia; and seniors Stephanie Jabrial, Elsie Kmecak, Kayla Loos, Eva Lynch, Mason Maile, Kelly Pum and Olivia Ricci.

“I am so proud of you; I hope you know that,” whispered Barbara Maile to her grandson, Mason Maile, a senior at Catholic Central. Mason, six other seniors and four juniors received awards for academic achievement.

In addition to his grandmother, Mason’s dad, James, and his mom, Christine Klesmith, accompanied him.  This was the family’s fourth time attending the breakfast.

“Our older daughter also maintained a 4.0, so we have been fortunate to attend this breakfast four years in a row,” she said. “She attends Marquette University, so she will be very close to Mason, who plans to attend MSOE.”

While 17-year-old Mason said it wasn’t difficult for him to maintain his grades, he knows college will be a bit different at first.

“I plan to major in mechanical engineering,” he said. “I took several Advanced Placement classes that gave me college credit and hopefully prepared me a little. When I first got to high school, it was a little challenging, but I adapted pretty well. I imagine college will be similar.”